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Sarah Jane Woodall: Undercover grubbers



Picture a plate of succulent scallops, glistening on a bed of mouth-watering braised oxtails and shiitake mushrooms, lovingly prepared and plated under the aegis of a celebrity chef — a foodie delight the likes of which are found in many a Vegas Strip hotel.

Now pan the camera down — down below the white-clothed table, below the slate floor, down to the bowels of the hotel, where the employees who julienned your carrots and muddled your mint sit in grim silence, lapping up a mysterious Alpo-like substance in a room with all the ambiance of Alcatraz. That’s right: I’m talking about the EDR.

Unlike above-ground joints with pretentious all-cap names, EDR is actually a functioning acronym that stands for Employee Dining Room. It’s a corporate cafeteria where hotel employees enjoy free meals during their shifts. I think it started out as a Culinary Union contract requirement. But it’s become such an expected institution that even nonunion hotels have them.

I worked at an unnamed Strip hotel for nine years, and every night I ate dinner at the EDR. In the beginning, there was a sizeable spread with short-order cooks who would make just about anything you wanted, plus a fairly decent salad bar for the health-conscious. But after the Recession hit, things changed. The EDR was scaled back until it became ridiculous, serving a limited selection of dreck like Velveeta-coated turkey slices and very suspect “beef” Bourguignon. Old-timers would complain, recalling the days when the EDR was actually a classy affair with shrimp and prime rib, served by actual waitstaff … but times had changed for good. The new slop was here to stay. Still, it was free, so I ate there until I quit.

But could all EDRs really be that bad? Last week, a friend and I went undercover to find out. We visited several Strip casinos, infiltrating the EDRs and documenting our experience like Zagat reviewers.

It’s simple to gain access to this bounty of free food. We put on black slacks and shirts, so that we looked like hotel employees — but even that wasn’t necessary. There is such a diversity of employee attire (lifeguards, nightclub workers, corporate shills) that a “uniform” makes no difference. We simply walked around the casino until we saw employees coming in and out of a doorway, then followed them in like we knew what we were doing. Some EDRs have turnstiles that can only be entered by swiping an employee ID card, but for the most part these turnstiles are either broken, jammed open or nonexistent. So it’s a breeze to walk in and have a meal.

But why would anyone in their right mind want to eat slop — even free slop?! You’d have to be pretty desperate to trespass an EDR just for a bite, right? Well, in my experience that is certainly true of Caesars Entertainment properties. Every Caesars EDR I visited rated no more than maybe two stars. Sad! (Disclosure: I once worked for that company.)

The MGM properties, however, were much better. A couple of the places we visited were actually quite impressive, on par with (or even superior to) many commercial buffets. Leafy greens, hummus bars, pizza stations, cheesecake-flavored soft-serve with Oreo crumbles … one place even had alkaline water on tap. Kudos to you, MGM, you treat your employees well.

We were curious about the nonunion places, so we checked out a few of those. As expected, we found the Venetian and the Palazzo to be dark, grim affairs with limited offerings — and what little was on offer was locked up tight behind functioning turnstiles. You win this round, Sheldon “Tightfist” Adelson. Still, by observing the employees’ trays, we were able to ascertain that the food quality at these EDRs wasn’t top-notch.

We saved what we assumed to be the best for last — the Cosmopolitan. Such a visually striking, hip hotel with such amazing customer service would surely have an exceptional EDR, no? At first glance, it looked great: The décor was lively, the food presentation was fantastic, and there was an astonishing variety of exotic foodie-food. Salivating, we grabbed trays … but as we walked around the counters, we noticed prices on everything … and a check-out cash register!


Really, Deutsche Bank, you’re just reinforcing every negative stereotype about the miserly frugality of Germans by limiting your employees’ food consumption this way.

Now, like I said, some hotels had tighter security than others, so the general public can only infiltrate certain EDRs. But I’m not telling which ones … I don’t want them ratcheting up their security. After all, I might find myself hungry on the Strip, and I can’t afford to eat at Gordon Ramsay every day!

SARAH JANE WOODALL satisfies your hunger for life at her blog,